Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column

Class Roles – Debunking DPS


This week I’m starting a three part (or perhaps more) series on the archetypal classes of the MMO: DPS, Tank, and Healer. The purpose here is not so much to investigate the “how-to’s” of these roles. There are plenty of articles, discussion boards, and plug-ins devoted to that. Instead, the focus will be to answer the question “why” and, as per my usual, “where can we go from here”.

The current class system reminds me a lot of chess. I’ve always had a lot of respect for chess players. It’s an ancient game with basic rules yet exceedingly complex strategy. I tip my hat to those who play it well (that is, if I were wearing a hat). That being said, I can’t stand playing the game. On a basic level, it’s exceedingly slow and onerous (this from one who likes old Avalon Hill games such as Squad Leader and Third Reich). But the greater problem I have with chess is that, while it has tons of strategy, that strategy has no basis in reality. There has never been a military formation that can only move diagonally, or one that must move left or right once per every two steps it makes forward. Every piece in chess has its select purpose and function, but they don’t relate to anything real. The current MMO class structure behaves in much the same way.

I’m not just talking about Healers here. They’re the ones that actually make the most sense because the justification for their role is magical. The real issue I have is with the DPS and the Tank. If the distinction between the two was simply that one’s focus was defense and the other is offense, I could get along with that fine. History is replete with examples where individuals, military formations, or combat vehicles focused more heavily on one or the other. Heavily armored formations move slower, perhaps taking more damage, but are designed to do just that and prevail while lightly armored formations rely on speed, stealth, or maneuverability to end a battle quickly because they cannot endure sustained damage. Yet the archetypes have pushed way beyond this to the point where a Tank’s role is to take damage and the DPS’s role is to give it. It has become almost like the two roles represent two halves of the same person. The Tank is the shield and the DPS is the sword.

This isn’t to say that Tanks can’t give damage. A good Tank can give quite a lot of it. In WoW, for example, most Tanking classes have nice Area-of-Effect spells or maneuvers, often giving out more general damage to a group of enemies than a DPS can because most DPS’s must focus on one target at a time. But class roles only really become significant in group play. Any class is playable individually, provided you know what you’re doing.

Shifting the focus more towards DPS (I’ll be delving into Tanks and Healers in future articles), where does the concept come from? Why is it Damage per Second and not Hits per Second? In real life, lethal combat is much more about hitting an enemy than damaging them. Likewise, defense mechanisms in real life are designed to avoid being hit through active measures such as maneuverability or passive ones like armor. Yet in an equal fight in MMOs you are almost always hit and take damage. I think the roots of this premise go all the way back to the appearance of D&D and the hit point system it has perpetuated in most RPGs. The initial premise in D&D was that hit points represented not health, but a broad sense of a character’s defensive ability. Damage inflicted wasn’t necessarily real “damage”, but rather a wearing down of those defenses. When health hit zero, those defenses were depleted and the character was struck down.

Yet this initial, semi-plausible justification has been largely lost in the intervening years as the hit point system has become common practice. If hit points are the wearing away of defenses, then why is a character just as capable at full health as they are at 10% health? Shouldn’t offensive capability diminish as the defenses are worn down in representation of weariness and minor wounds?

On a similar note, weapons aren’t designed to cause DPS like some sort of mathematical formula. They are designed to overcome an opponent’s defenses and inflict damage. Period. In some instances, this may be representative of a wearing down process, like a protracted duel between two master swordsmen, but in most it isn’t. Furthermore, this philosophy minimizes the individual skills of the respective warriors. If one is better than the other (or quite simply lucky), there is no need to wear down the opponent as one attack breaks the defenses and lands a killing blow. The most extreme example is the dagger (or like weapons) which, as I discussed last article, hardly fits into a general combat arsenal. A dagger isn’t a weapon for face-to-face combat. It is the tool of the assassin. If an assassin sneaks up on an enemy guard, he isn’t going to stab his target with a certain amount of “DPS” which might be augmented by some sort of “critical strike” bonus (ala WoW’s rogue class). No, he’s going to stab the unsuspecting foe through the heart, or slit his throat, or execute some other single fatal strike.

“That’s all fine and dandy,” you may say, “but what can MMOs do about it?” Only a radical change of perspective in the commonly accepted practices of gaming will bring a change. Yet is that such a horrible idea? Try googling DPS, Tank, and Healer along with your favorite MMO name and you’ll found thousands of websites that have spent the past 5+ years dissecting the archetypal systems to measure classes, gear, and talents in order to eek out the maximum performance for each class. I think it’s safe to say that players have cracked the code on how the three archetypes interrelate. Given the millions of man-hours that have gone into that depth of analysis, maybe it’s time to give these connoisseurs of classes a new combat structure to stretch their collective brains around.

The most ideal way would be a focus on hitting targets instead of damaging them. Damage happens when hits are made, but the challenge in real life is usually landing the damaging blow, not maximizing the damage that happens when the blow is landed. There are plenty of examples of this already in the non-MMO setting. FPS games have been at this concept for quite some time, though their characters are shallow cookie-cutters compared with MMOs. But the Elder Scrolls series has merged the concept quite well in their single-player RPGS. Age of Conan, at least, has begun to explore moving beyond simple DPS (if not out of the archetypal class structure), so I do have hope that other designers will be more ambitious.

The major hurdle of this system is latency which gives those with better connections a marked advantage (not to mention the server-controlled monsters in PvE). The auto-attack of DPS does provide some measure of comfort when the screen locks, after all. But latency issues continue to shrink compared with what they were a decade ago when MMOs first came on the scene. Of course there is a risk in switching to “HPS”. Players might actually have to move beyond pre-arranged commonly accepted key sequences and really premeditate their blocks, parries, ducks, and strikes. Instead of stats doing the work for us, it might be nice if we worked through them instead.

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